Delta Flows: Failed Drought Planning for the Delta 

By: Barbara Barrigan-Parrilla

Drought Barriers, an evil necessity?
Yesterday, Restore the Delta sent the following scoping comment letter to the Army Corps of Engineers in response to a “Dredge and Fill (404) Application from California Department of Water Resources (DWR) to construct North Delta Drought Salinity Barriers Project.” DWR proposes in its application to add two more temporary rock fill barriers along Steamboat and Miner sloughs in the North Delta intending to prevent intrusion of high-salinity tidal waters into the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta should critical drought conditions persist into 2023 and beyond.

Responding to planning for the installation of salinity barriers as the preferred method to manage drought in the Delta has always been difficult for Restore the Delta. On the one hand, as we commented, “Delta agriculture could face crop losses, and Delta communities who draw their water directly from Delta channels or groundwater wells adjacent to salinizing Delta channels would lose their capacity to deliver clean, safe, and good-tasting fresh drinking water.” If barriers are not used to protect against saltwater intrusion. On the other, barriers are a further impediment for survival of endangered fish species, contribution to the proliferation of harmful algal blooms, increase residency time of water pollutants, and contribute to warmer water temperatures where water cannot circulate.

Like the choices offered in a Greek tragedy, DWR’s drought plans leave Delta communities stuck between two tragic outcomes.

This is why we have asked the Army Corps to do the real drought work that neither DWR, nor the State Water Resources Control Board, can rally itself to do under Governor Newsom’s timidity. While the Army Corps has no authority over water rights, a State Water Resources Control Board administrative duty, it can look at modeling for a no action alternative (no additional barriers) that could work if agricultural units upstream and exporters were all to take equal cuts to water supply in order to keep a natural freshwater barrier in the Delta. From there, available water for agriculture could be shared in equal measure. In other words, we have recommended flipping the script on analysis by figuring out how much water the Delta needs to stay intact during extended drought, and from that point figuring out how much water can be taken in the entire watershed by agriculture. We understand that export water for health and human safety needs will need to be shared with urban areas, no matter what. And yes, urban conservation is a must as aridification expands in California; however, the biggest user of developed water continues to be industrial agriculture and their collective use must be looked at first. (We will hold off on another almond rant – as our readers know that story.)

We aren’t the only party calling for brave leadership.

On July 16, 2022, On The Public Record Water published with permission a resignation letter submitted to the State Water Resources Control Board by their now former lead climate scientist Max Gomberg. He, and the anonymous author at OTPR_Water give voice to all that is seriously wrong with the state’s water planning processes. 

Gomberg writes in his letter:

“To my Water Board colleagues: 
Witnessing the agency’s ability to tackle big challenges nearly eviscerated by this Administration has been gut wrenching. The way some of you have simply rolled over and accepted this has also been difficult to watch.

“However, your commitment to racial equity is a reason for optimism. A tremendous amount of time and effort is going into creating a meaningful action plan and that is worthy of praise. But, following through on those commitments means leaning into conflict. Some of you need to dig deep and find your moral compass. If you cannot do that you should step aside and let others lead.”

OTPR_Water adds:

“My state water agency has an unspoken internalized mandate that nothing we do can lead to conflict or the admission that policy changes will create losers. We will let existing injustices and suffering for lack of water exist forever, so long as any real-world pains aren’t because of something we touched or changed or did. This means that poor people (farmworker communities, the homeless) and the voiceless (fish, creatures, rivers) have been and will be neglected into extinction while the agency studies and models and creates decision frameworks.”

How will such cowardice from government officials play out when we reach the sixth, seventh, and eighth year of drought? We sink in our spirits when we think of the consequences facing California from such poor water planning.

And the disparity between equity talk and action takes new life.

Restore the Delta has and will continue to participate in the State Water Resource Control Board’s Equity Policy Implementation Planning Committee because it is simply the right thing to do to center Delta communities and California Tribes in water planning.

However, there is great disparity between the admirable work of that committee and the conduct and decision-making of the Board itself. The cognitive dissonance we experience between the positive process work and the reality of what is happening in terms of policy development is quite maddening some days.

For instance, the State Water Resources Control Board will be holding a Special Meeting to Consider Board Priorities without any remote participation from Lake Tahoe.

It is hard enough with another resurgence of COVID to safely attend meetings in Sacramento for community groups, environmental justice groups, tribes, but now priorities during emergency aridification conditions will be considered in beautiful, cool, Lake Tahoe, where public access cannot happen via Zoom or teleconferencing due to the remote location.

The hypocrisy is just too much. Let’s plan for equity, but deny equity and transparency in the Board’s priority planning process. Talk about broken government…

Yet, we want to leave you with a positive thought.

Just like we enjoy celebrating our new and developing young staff, we want to celebrate smart colleagues doing the heavy lifting to protect the Delta.

Take a few extra minutes to read Dr. Jon Rosenfield’s interview with Maven’s Notebook. We admire his science-based approach to analyzing Delta issues on behalf of San Francisco Baykeeper. Our work over the years with Dr. Rosenfield reveals that If a project doesn’t pass the credible science test, Dr. Rosenfield stands up for an honest science based approach for managing the Delta. Rational thought and courage. We think the State Water Resources Control Board should take note. 

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